It’s tough to do any kind of numbers-based preview about the Packers because last season was such a huge flaming pile of garbage, and as the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. The injury to Aaron Rodgers exposed the rest of the team's roster, the front office, and the coaching staff as under-talented and outmoded.
Gone is Ted Thompson, replaced by the far more free-agent-happy Brian Gutekunst. Gone is the much-reviled Dom Capers. And to some extent, even Mike McCarthy has seen his influence diminish with the return of Joe Philbin from Miami. The old Packers were showing signs of significant decline across the board, but there is good reason to be optimistic about the whole shebang this season. Gutekunst wasted no time taking swift action against those who who failed last season, making several deft maneuvers to fix long-standing issues while showing a keen understanding of what is valuable in the modern NFL.
Dom Capers' philosophy needed to go. In the modern NFL turnovers may be important, but offenses work to minimize them, and you simply cannot predicate a defense on the prospect of taking the ball away. Capers was supposed to pressure quarterbacks with creative blitz packages and cause turnovers, but that pressure didn’t get home nearly often enough, and when it didn’t, the Packers were the worst defense in the NFL.
That’s a problem because most of the time, pressure doesn’t get home. The fact is that the way the defense was structured in 2017 was, in many ways, designed to be bad under the most common scenarios.
The game changes all the time. Michael Lewis followed up his seminal book Moneyball, which opened the lid on the sabermetric movement going on in Oakland, with The Blind Side. The Moneyball movie captures the spirit of the book quite well, but the same cannot be said of The Blind Side, which is both a commentary on the rising importance of left tackles in professional football and a veiled criticism of the college game. The Blind Side was also among the first mainstream publications to really highlight the importance of edge rushers, and in recent football history there is little doubt that edge rushers are among the most important players on the field outside of quarterback, but a funny thing happened over the past three years or so. Front offices and offensive coaching staffs have decided that interceptions are terrible, and they have taken drastic steps to avoid them.
One of the ways they go about this is to have quarterbacks get the ball out quickly. Tom Brady has lived with this strategy for years, often getting the ball out to a bevy of shifty slot receivers and huge tight ends before the rush even sniffs him, and the rest of the NFL took notice and copied them, as they do.
I’m not generally the largest fan of Pro Football Focus, but they occasionally do something worth paying attention to. They’re currently in the process of creating a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) stat.
I think this is foolhardy because even the well-vetted baseball version of WAR requires a large sample size of underlying data to be accurate, but the commentary around their research so far is interesting. They support the notion that corners are now more valuable than edge rushers precisely because they must be able to cover receivers in the time before the rush could even plausibly get home. They posit that instead of the rush making corners better, it is now on the secondary to give the rush time to get home. That’s a big claim, but I think it makes a lot of sense, and it certainly seems to fit with data generated by the Packers’ secondary over the past few seasons.
While the pass rush, led by Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, hasn’t been outstanding, Mike Daniels has routinely provided excellent interior pressure and Julius Peppers kicked in a few very good seasons as well. The secondary, on the other hand, has been an absolute train wreck. Ted Thompson will go down as one of the greatest GMs in team history, but he will take deserved heat over not retaining Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde and for a train wreck of a draft that used high picks on Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall. The Packers were 27th against the pass last season (per DVOA) and 23rd in 2016. In 2015 they actually had a great pass defense, ranking 6th. That secondary featured Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, Morgan Burnett, and Micah Hyde. It was the rookie year for Rollins and Randall, but it was the actual talented members of the secondary, most of whom would leave, who led to success.
Brian Gutekunst was undeterred by the previous two drafts having used high picks on corners, and went back to the well, adding Jaire Alexander in the first round and Josh Jackson in the second. This may seem like a bit of a waste after using high picks on defensive backs like Randall, Rollins, Kevin King, and Josh Jones, but the fact of the matter is that you need good corners across the board to compete in the modern NFL, and if your previous picks don’t turn out, you don’t have much of a choice. Gutekunst would also bring back Tramon Williams who still has something in the tank, unlike previous veteran retread Davon House, who was one of the worst players in football in 2017.
Early returns appear good, and Mike Pettine’s new defense has gotten rave reviews so far. Gutekunst also added the speedy, if slightly undersized, Oren Burks to work off of the Clark/Daniels/Wilkerson combo upfront, drag down running backs, and cover tight ends. Reggie Gilbert has passed the mega-bust Kyler Fackrell, leaving Packer fans more confident when the inevitable Matthews injury occurs. The defense had plenty of questions in the offseason and all but safety now have satisfactory answers. I’ve been as hard on Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as anyone and I’m still skeptical that he’s particularly good, but Capers’ old scheme did no favors for the safeties, and Clinton-Dix was often forced to play as a true safety valve, keeping him out as an active participant. Kentrell Brice and Josh Jones are also still works in progress, but the good news is that relative to corner, safety isn’t as important, which is one reason why the free agent market for safety tanked in the offseason. If the incumbents struggle, there are still several quality replacements on the open market.
It’s a bridge too far to say the defense will definitely be good in 2018, but to this point, all signs are positive. Coordinator changes generally do inject some improvement into a team, and it’s heartening to see the front office understand and address issues. This will likely be the best Packers defense in at least 3 seasons, and even if it’s only average, that’s plenty.
In the post-merger area, Aaron Rodgers is the only quarterback to throw 40 or more touchdowns with fewer than 7.4 yards per attempt. He did this in 2016. Knock it down to 39 TDs and Brett Favre’s 1996 season joins the club. Rodgers is unique in his ability to provide production either while throwing bombs or by checking down over and over and over. Still, it’s worth noting that producing that many scores with such short passes is extremely difficult, and may not be repeatable.
Rodgers’ greatness is not in question, but his past three seasons have been markedly different than his earlier career. Like the rest of the NFL, he decided to clamp down on interceptions, but doing so came with a real cost. It didn’t help that Jordy Nelson, one of the best deep threats, and most complete receivers in Packer history, blew out his knee in 2015, and while Davante Adams is now a star in his own right, the Packers have lacked a deep game and depth since that occurred.
Adams is an outstanding anchor to have, and Randall Cobb showed that he can still get open out of the slot with ease. Everything else needed, and received, an overhaul. Gone are Jeff Janis and Martellus Bennett, and DeAngelo Yancey and Trevor Davis will have a hard time making the team. The Packers spent three late round picks on big receivers, and they signed a few big tight ends. This is going to be the largest group of skill position players, physically speaking, that Rodgers has ever had.
Brian Gutekunst signed two free agent tight ends in the offseason. The first, Jimmy Graham, is coming off his worst season by far. Normally this would be cause of concern, but having trouble in the 2017 Seattle offense isn’t unusual as the team featured one of the worst offensive lines in NFL history. As a nominal member of that offensive line, Graham rarely got free releases, and when he did, Russell Wilson was rarely able to deliver a clean pass. Graham has lost a step, but he’s still a dangerous mid-range weapon, and an outstanding goal line presence, often able to box out defenders for easy scores.
The other, Marcedes Lewis, is a fine receiver, but he truly excels as a blocker. It’s not hyperbole to say that Lewis would have been the best offensive lineman on the Seahawks last season had he played there. What Lewis will provide for the Packers is unparalleled formation diversity. He can anchor a heavy running look, or split out wide with Ty Montgomery to present a five wide front. Lewis is an underrated acquisition, and likely to pay big dividends.
In the draft the Packers showed that they have a type. J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown are all over 6-3, all extremely athletic for being such late picks, and a drastic change from the late Thompson selections like small speedster Trevor Davis or bulky Ty Montgomery. Should the undrafted Jake Kumerow make the team, you can add him to the ranks of the new giants. Counting on rookie receivers to contribute immediately is risky, but they all enter a good situation, in which the routes that take time to master will be handled by Adams and Graham, leaving them free to run fly patterns, or work out of the slot.
Joe Philbin will also likely bring creativity back to a game plan that had grown moribund. Mike McCarthy’s strategy had grown extremely stale, lacking formation diversity, and counting on players to out-execute the opposing defense while also telegraphing the play to that defense. That strategy doesn’t work anymore, and Doug Pederson of the Eagles, and Bill Belichick of the Patriots, put on a Super Bowl master class of punching and counter-punching that the Packers simply could not have played. If the front office was unwilling to move on from McCarthy, putting a trusted critic in the room with him isn’t a bad compromise.
Rodgers should be excited. The running game, now anchored by Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones, and Montgomery, should offer well-rounded support, and the receivers he has at his disposal should allow for unprecedented creativity. Brett Hundley was awful in 2017, and replacing Rodgers is impossible, but a well-run team should not need to rely on their quarterback to single-handedly win games. In 2016, when Rodgers threw those 40 touchdowns, the Packers’ passing game ranked 7th in DVOA.
There’s nothing wrong with ranking 7th, but for a team led by Rodgers, throwing 40 touchdowns should rank as one of the elite teams. When you have the best or second best quarterback, your offense and your passing game should finish ranked one or two. The Packers, and any team built on an elite quarterback, cannot afford to get anything less than elite play out of that quarterback, and for the first time since Nelson, Jennings, and Driver all graced the field together, the Packers appear to have the personnel to make that happen. There are some questions on the line, but they are strong where they need to be, and defending the Packers this season should be next to impossible.
I think the common notion is that the Packers will get Rodgers back and therefore be good. In truth, this team has been completely overhauled. They are getting Rodgers back, but they’re getting so much more. With a healthy Rodgers the team’s floor is at 9-7 and a wild card contender, but this team is likely to be so much more. I expect a return to greatness, and for the Packers to be one of the best teams in football. They are a true talent 11-5, 12-4 team, and should be in the mix for a first round bye. They did a great job in the offseason, assessing where they were, where the league is going, and how to fix it.